Twenty-six New York City business owners have been charged in a "complex criminal scheme" that smuggled Chinese aliens into the U.S. to work at restaurants and other establishments, federal officials tell FoxNews.com.

James Hayes Jr., Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agent in Charge for New York, said the aliens were often held in unsanitary conditions, received inadequate compensation. The eight-month investigation culminated on Wednesday and Thursday with arrests at the establishments, which were located in the city's Chinatown neighborhood.

The defendants allegedly participated in various facets of the alien smuggling industry, including: transportation of illegal aliens from China to the United States; laundering the proceeds of illegal alien smuggling from the United States to China; and employing illegal aliens.

Of the 26 defendants charged, 23 were arrested this morning, and three -- Mao Ping Li, also know as"Jackie Li," Yi Min Ren, and Moi Ha Chek, also known as "Christine" -- remain at large.
"We anticipate at least one more [arrest]," Hayes told FoxNews.com.

According to indictments unsealed yesterday and the record of the case, six defendants, smuggled or conspired to smuggle aliens from China to the United States from April through October 2010. The smugglers typically charged approximately $75,000 to smuggle each alien into the United States. Those fees were often collected from the family members of the aliens.

Three more defendants were charged in additional indictments with money laundering in connection with the movement of money from the United States to China. The defendants, who operated in connection with commercial money transmittal businesses, knew or had reason to know they were laundering the proceeds of alien smuggling, for the purpose of concealing the movement of the proceeds or avoiding transaction reporting requirements, the documents said.

Eighteen defendants allegedly harbored illegal aliens for the purpose of commercial advantage or financial gain, some operating employment agencies in Chinatown and referring illegal aliens to restaurant owners and managers for a fee who in turn employed the illegal aliens.

"The targets of this investigation are business owners and smugglers who allegedly sought to enrich themselves by depriving their employees of basic human rights and freedoms guaranteed under our Constitution," he said. "The human smugglers and money remittance business owners are alleged to have funneled funds into and out of the United States in furtherance of this complex criminal scheme and in violation of U.S. Banking laws."

The arrested defendants were expected to be presented in Manhattan federal court Thursday.

"These defendants allegedly trafficked in human beings, making money off the backs of illegal immigrants and treating them like chattel," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement Thursday.

It was unclear how long the operation had been in existence.

Hayes said the arrests marked the agency's single-largest investigation of employers believed to have hired and utilized unauthorized workers in New York City. In fiscal year 2010, ICE officials arrested a total of 22 individuals in related crimes in New York City.

"We think this is a vulnerability," Hayes said. "We believe this is a priority for us and we think there could be other businesses whose business model is to exploit foreign workers to make profits."

“As this investigation reinforces, criminal worksite enforcement investigations of egregious employers remain a priority of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in New York City and throughout the country," he added in the statement.

If convicted of the charges alleged in the indictments two of the defendants face a maximum sentence of fifteen years and a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison; two others face a maximum sentence of ten years in prison and a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison; and one more faces a
maximum sentence of ten years in prison.

The money laundering charges carry a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison. 

If convicted of the charges alleged in the indictments, the employment agency and restaurant owner defendants face a maximum sentence of ten years in prison.